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Uranium pollution from wartime mining activity is driving Native Americans from their homes in Church Rock, part of the Navajo Nation in New Mexico. Toxic waste, radioactive dirt, and polluted runoff make the area unsafe for long-term human habitation. Residents have been evacuated several times since 2007, spending months in hotels while crews removed radioactive soil. Temporary housing has cost the Environmental Protection Agency (E.P.A.). one million USD to date. The E.P.A. estimates it would take at least eight years to dispose of the mine waste and decontaminate the area, and administrative approvals for the effort would add at least two more years before cleanup could begin.
The Navajo had no word for “radioactivity” when the area’s mining began in the 1940s, and people were not told of its dangers. Families used the radioactive water pumped out of the mines for cooking, washing, and drinking; waste material from the mines was used to construct buildings. In July 1979, a dam broke dam at a mill used to process uranium ore, spilling 94 million gallons of effluent and 1,100 tons of radioactive sludge into local waterways. The disaster released three times as much radioactivity as the Three Mile Island incident four months before, making it the biggest radioactive spill in American history.
Today over 500 abandoned mines litter the land. Although mining stopped in the 1960s, uranium is still present in the area, and E.P.A. water testing has identified leaching into the community’s drinking water. Local Navajo report higher-than-average rates of cancer, kidney disease, hypertension, and autoimmune conditions. Data gathered on the population suggests all these ailments are likely results of uranium pollution. Worse yet, exposed parents can pass the consequences of uranium exposure to their children, a toxic inheritance the effects of have not been thoroughly studied. People have no wish to leave the land, but worry it may never be truly clean. “This is where we’re used to being, traditionally, culturally” said one resident. “Nobody told us it was unsafe. Nobody warned us we would be living all this time with this risk.”
The plight of the Church Rock Navajo community may foreshadow future crises across the globe, Decades of carelessly exploiting the planet seems to be catching up with the human race, and quickly. Imagine discovering that your backyard was full of toxic soil; that contaminants laced the water coming from your shower; that the bricks used to build your home emanated radioactivity. This is the alarming reality in places like Church Rock, impoverished communities that process electronic waste, or the Chinese “cancer villages” featured last year in an Orbiting Tomorrow post. Even if you were able to leave, where would you go? Environmental refugees are generally associated with climate change, but pollution could also spark an exodus from unlivable land. In 2013, images of China’s terrible smog shocked the world: what if the population of even one major city was forced to evacuate? Relocating the population of even one major city would require tremendous resources. Another problem we will undoubtedly face is the cost of care for the myriad medical problems resulting from pollution.
Perhaps more disturbing than the contamination itself—remnants of an era when little thought was spared for environmental consequences—is the ponderous response to cleaning up the mess. Properly decontaminating Church Rock will first require an application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to remove the waste, environmental and safety reviews. That’s at least two years of bureaucratic machinations before any work can begin. Meanwhile, uranium continues poisoning the community. Governments are pushing paper when they should be pushing backhoes. If such neglectful handling of toxic sites persists, we may all find ourselves forced from our home, like the Navajo. Not just our town or our country, but our planet.